Updated: Feb 27, 2020
Feeling the therms
“This is the place where Budapest comes to chill out,” Laszlo, a banker in Pest, tells me. “many people come here to relax, but some come to do business deals, discuss politics, socialize, or meet members of the opposite sex – I even met my wife here!” he says with a glint in his eye. A visit to Budapest is not complete without a visit to one of its many marvelous bath houses. A leftover ‘gift’ from the time of the Turkish occupation, most Budapestites today could not imagine life without baths, and they form a vital part of the social life of the city. From the neo-baroque masterpiece that is the Szechenyi complex in the outskirts of Pest to the more basic Turkish style Kiraly Baths in Buda, there is something to suit everyone’s taste. There is even a world-famous club night in Szechenyi baths once a month; the so-called ‘sparty’ that is Cinetrip has gained fame and notoriety in equal measures in recent years, having started out as a relatively underground night in Rudas baths in the late 00's/early 10s. I decided to investigate all that the five best baths in Budapest have to offer, braving sub-zero temperatures, flip-flop-wearing, moustachio-ed middle-aged men with pot bellies and more speedos than you could shake a towel at, in search of the perfect bath….
Open daily 06.00-22.00. Address: Allatkerti korut 11-14, Budapest.
@ www.szechenyifurdo.hu / sparty booking: https://spartybooking.com/
Being the biggest and arguably the best (certainly the most popular) baths in Budapest, these are the first ones to make a bee-line for. Located out on the eastern fringes of the centre, close to Heroes’ Square and the City Zoo, this is really the ultimate bathing experience in Budapest, and, arguably, Europe – it is the largest medicinal bath on the continent. The first thing you notice about the Szechenyi baths is the stunning architecture. Neo-baroque, the pastel-yellow painted buildings were built in 1881, when they were known as the ‘Artesian Baths’; only completed in 1913, the sweeping colonnades and arches lend the whole complex a dignified, Habsburg feel which adds to the ambiance of the already relaxing baths. All walks of life come here to chat, bathe, socialize, flirt, do business. Some people even play chess here; I noticed a group of older gentlemen, up to their necks in steaming water, intently staring at a game in progress, oblivious to my taking pictures of them.
This is really a snapshot of Budapest society, and absolutely central to social life. Young, old, men, women, there are no social, sexual or age barriers here. Step inside the regal building and another world opens up; fifteen pools spread over several hundred square metres, countless steam rooms, saunas, freezing plunge pools… one sauna is 80 degrees Celsius – this is a sauna you want to visit sparingly. Only for the truly hardcore, I manage two minutes and run out of the door before my eyeballs burn, and leap into the freezing plunge pool. I spent a further few hours slipping contentedly from sauna to bath to steam room to plunge pool and the afternoon passes in a steamy haze of carefree relaxation and pleasant chat with friendly locals and tourists alike, before retiring to the bar to sip a pint of Szoproni beer, feeling as chilled out as I can remember feeling. I returned on a Saturday night to check out one of the thrice-monthly club nights here. Szechenyi takes on a completely different aspect by night. The famous 'sparties' that have taken place here for the past five years have grown into international clubbing events where thousands attend. The party was like nothing I had ever seen before: on entering, I was confronted by pounding techno, flashing disco lights, gyrating, bikini-clad bodies, fire-throwers, acrobats and DJ’s dressed in skimpy speedos and sunglasses. A night blurred by alcoholic excess in an environment where clubbing has rarely taken place in before, this level of bacchanalian revelry has to be seen to be believed, and yet seems completely in keeping with Budapest, where liberal attitudes prevail. “People come from all over Europe for these nights – they happily pay the 30 Euro entrance because they know this does not exist anywhere else” says Tomek, a Polish hipster who is traveling back to Krakow on the six a.m bus. “It’s just here”. I think he's right. Where else, after all, could it happen?
Bath Rating 9/10: A near-perfect bathing experience. Extremely social, fun and welcoming, it’s also the number one tourist choice. Truly, your visit to Budapest is not complete without a visit to this gem. The only thing against it is that it can get too busy for some, especially at weekends.
On the opposite side of the Danube (as are all of the remaining baths), Gellert is probably the most well-known after Szechenyi. It is housed in an impressive art nouveau palace right by the river, down the hill from Citadela. It’s one of the prettiest baths in Budapest – where else can you swim below a stained-glass atrium? Ornately decorated with beautiful mosaic tiles and regal pillars supporting high arched ceilings and marble balconies, Gellert can certainly claim to offer the most aesthetic of bathing experiences in Budapest, and its legendary curative thermal waters that flow from Gellert hill just above attract young and old alike for a healthy dose of relaxation. Like Szechnenyi, Gellert is open to both men and women, and offers co-ed bathing. I was treated to a rub-down and massage before embarking on the pools. Radio blaring Hungarian music, a monosyllabic, stern-looking guy got me to strip down and lie on a couch in a rather stark room. Twenty minutes of vigorous pummeling later, my back was left feeling a trifle sore, and I left wondering if it was worth the extra 15 Euros.